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Romantic Escapism: The Melancholic Images of John Minton
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Simon Martin, co-curator of the exhibition John Minton: A Centenary and Director of Pallant House Gallery, explores the artist’s achievements far beyond his reputation as a leading post-war illustrator and influential tutor.
There is no more revealing human personality than the visual artist. For a man will paint only of himself and of the things he knows, loves, hates, desires.
Whilst Minton’s paintings and drawings encapsulate a romantic strain of British art in the 1940s and 50s – images of London’s bomb damaged docks, portraits of pensive young men, and eye-catching book illustrations – each of these is a deeply personal expression of the artist himself.
In some works Minton evoked an atmosphere of poetic melancholy but in others he conveyed its complete opposite: an exuberant joie-de-vivre. In this respect his work forms a mirror to his own complex personality.
Minton was the life and soul of any party, known for his brilliant sense of humour. He was often to be seen drinking and dancing in the pubs and jazz bars of Soho in the company of artists such as Lucian Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, the poets George Barker and WS Graham, or, more often, with an adoring cohort of his young male students described as ‘Johnny’s Circus’. But he could also be introspective and prone to self-doubt.
These contrasting aspects of his personality were, of course, inescapably interlinked. His drinking and hedonism invariably were to be an escape from himself.
Minton was homosexual in a period before the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the legalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, when it was far from socially acceptable in Britain. Yet, whilst he was anti-authoritarian and did not seek to hide his sexuality, it left him conflicted, causing problems in several of his close male friendships. These personal difficulties perhaps add to the charge of his images, for Minton observed to a friend that:
The fact of what one paints and what one is is inescapably interwoven… I often idly wonder if my preoccupation with adolescence in painting leads you to wonder what incentive, besides that of obvious influences, I have to paint pictures like that. The physical aspect of things has always been of great importance to me, and with it the touching and melancholy impermanence of all physical beauty – a sort of hopeless aching nostalgia – and the despairing transitory nature of all physical unions.
Affectionately known as ‘Johnny’ to all his friends, despite being named Francis when he was born on Christmas Day 1917, Minton had a thoroughly middle class upbringing, punctuated by the death of his father when he was just thirteen. A family trust fund meant that he was never dependent purely on his art or on teaching, and that he could afford to be remarkably generous to his friends.
He was precociously talented and whilst at the St John’s Wood School of Art in the 1930s his work had been awarded a prize by the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell. She invited the painfully shy student to her country home, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, whose decorated interiors were perhaps to influence his later work.
Before the Second World War he had spent 1939 in Paris with his friend and fellow-student Michael Ayrton, where they encountered the work of European ‘Neo-Romantic’ artists such as Pavel Tchelitchew, Eugene Berman and Christian Berard.
Having registered as a conscientious objector at the outbreak of war, Minton’s appeal was rejected and he was called up to join the Pioneer Corps in December 1941, later enlisting for officer training with the infantry. However, he experienced some form of breakdown and was discharged in 1943 and his homosexuality is said to be a major factor in this.
During the war, he was to create ink drawings of youths in bomb-damaged settings, influenced by the willowy figures in the work of the European ‘Neo-Romantics’. Later, inspired by pastoral depictions of harvesters in the work of the 19th-century visionary artists William Blake and Samuel Palmer, he created elegiac depictions of youths sleeping in haystacks under harvest moons.
Such images were a form of imaginative escapism from the realities of the war. Together with Ayrton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, Keith Vaughan, and the younger John Craxton, Minton was part of a group of artists who were to be identified as ‘Neo-Romantic’. Their work conveyed a nostalgic and poetic landscape vision. Minton produced colourful and stylised paintings of the London docklands, which led him to be known as an ‘urban romantic.’
Through Vaughan, Minton was introduced to the publisher John Lehmann, who was the Director of the Hogarth Press and Editor of New Writing, a literary and artistic journal that was published throughout the 1940s and printed on wartime paper stock in a format that could fit into the pockets of soldiers.
Minton was commissioned to design a series of covers for it featuring seasonal vignettes of apple orchards and harvest scenes that were to be the first of over twenty book covers that he designed for Lehmann’s publishing house. Amongst these was Time was Away: A Notebook in Corsica, the result of a trip to the island with the poet Alan Ross in 1947. Coming from the overwhelming greyness of 1940s London, the sultry heat and bright sunlight were to be a welcome shock.
Minton’s drawings were to capture a sense of escapism and the comparative exoticism of the Mediterranean: his pastoral harvesters were reborn as swarthy Corsican youths taking a siesta in their fishing boats, whilst the gnarled trees framing his views were replaced with verdant vegetation.
It was to become a cult book for illustrators of the period, and made Minton the obvious choice to illustrate Elizabeth David’s now-iconic cookbook A Book of Mediterranean Food, published in May 1950. This featured recipes that were clearly impossible under rationing, such as ‘Turkish Stuffing for a whole Roast Sheep’ and David was later to describe the book as the ‘antidote to the bleak conditions and acute food shortages of immediate post-war Britain.’
Minton’s images of plenty featured tables laden with lobsters, melon, wine, olive oil, and tureens of soups and sauces, with Corsican maids bearing baskets of grapes and sailors drinking in quayside squares.
I’ve made some drawings for my cookery book, mostly of sailor boys which is going to disconcert the eager housewife.
John Minton, in a letter to a friend
But in fact the combination of David’s impractical (and then virtually impossible) recipes and Minton’s images made it a hugely popular with aspirational British housewives.
It was to be followed by French Country Cooking in 1951 for which Minton borrowed many of the utensils that appear in his illustrations from David herself, with a wrap-around cover featuring the interior of a wellstocked kitchen with a view to a château beyond.
It’s sort of a drug, travelling, which seems to prevent me thinking – I feel vaguely irresponsible and peer at historic monuments.
A sense of escapism pervades all Minton’s images based on his travels. He would make sketchbooks of ‘small drawings of things that hold the eye’ which would be worked up into finished works on his return.
Besides one visit to Scandinavia, most of his trips were towards warmer climates: the South of France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco. The sense of escapism was perhaps most strongly expressed in his images of the West Indian island of Jamaica, to which he travelled on a banana boat with his then boyfriend Ricky Stride in September 1950.
Although he was conscious of the racial and post-colonial tensions, the tropical vegetation and beauty of the people were to have a substantial impact on his work. He was to write of how ‘the colour of the Jamaican is that of coloured inks, of over-ripe fruit, acid yellows, magentas, viridians.’
In the 1950s his work became increasingly naturalistic. Many of his portraits of young men have a deep poignancy and psychological intensity. Various of his students sat for these portraits including Bobby Hunt whom he met at Camberwell, and David Tindle, whom he met at a Sketch Club at St Martin’s School of Art. His portrait, and related drawing, of Tindle seated in a chair (both now in the collection of Pallant House Gallery) presents the young artist in a stylised manner indebted to Picasso’s blue period.
There is often a tension in such paintings, perhaps reflective of Minton’s unrealised desires, as in Painter and Model (1953, Russell Coates Art Gallery), which depicts his handsome and muscular friend and model Norman Bowler with Minton reflected rather stiffly in the mirror behind him. Others such as his brooding Portrait of Raymond Ray and Portrait of Kevin Maybury (1956) depict his lovers. Ray was a dancer, who having briefly been a lover became a lodger and friend, whilst Maybury was an Australian carpenter working at the Royal Court Theatre, who was Minton’s final boyfriend.
A painter is a supreme egoist. Everything he experiences must finally culminate in painting, the one thing that has more importance than anything else. Hate, love, sex, despair are all, as it were, the only means, to the one ultimate end, the expression of self: and because of this everything he feels will have an intense personal significance.
Minton increasingly took to heavy drinking during the 1950s. In part this reflected his anxieties about his relationships, and perhaps also concern at the wider atmosphere in Britain for gay men following the high profile Montagu case in 1954 at which several men being sent to prison for homosexual offences.
Furthermore, by 1956 modern art appeared to be headed in a different direction from the tradition of figurative art of which Minton remained a devoted practioner. That year, the Tate Gallery had held a major exhibition of American art, presenting paintings by several of the Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Although only forty, Minton felt ‘out of date’.
He took a year’s sabbatical from teaching at the Royal College of Art and spiralling further into depression, tragically he took an overdose in January 1957.
The melancholy was in his eyes, a look eloquent of defeat and loss. When he was not conscious of being observed, gazing perhaps through a window or into the distance at nothing at all, he had the air of someone who had come to the conclusion that all hope was illusory, that whatever was worth attaining was already out of reach, beyond recall.
The poet Alan Ross on John Minton
Yet although his life was lived with giddy highs and crashing lows, his paintings, drawings and prints endure as some of the most poignant works in Modern British art.